Tuesday, 27 July 2010

National XC Championships 2010

My first senior XC championships! Last year, the race was based at Innerleithen in the south of Scotland, a place where I had had my first taste of racing at the BUSAs in 2005. I was monumentally ill-equipped technically for the challenges ahead of me, and managed to crash heavily the day before the race and give myself a dead leg and a tasty bruise. I was towed to a team bronze medal by my two Cambridge team mates, and vowed that one day I would return, better able to ride the tricky descents that the Scots love so much.

Fast forward four and a bit years to July 2009, and I was having a bit of a torrid time. My XC racing hadn’t been going particularly well at the NPS races, and I felt like I didn’t have the legs to even contemplate the national champs, especially when they were in such an unforgivingly hilly venue that was so far away. Instead, I opted to get trounced at an Eastern series race by none other than Alex Dowsett!
Keen not to repeat my softness, and also even more keen to race again at Pippingford after the southern XC race there in May, I decided to make my daring debut in the senior ranks this year. Although it was another hilly course in store, I felt happier about my XC form on the whole than 12 months before, and in any case I reassured myself that the XC champs can be a strange race, and an aim of top-25, and with it a UCI point, was probably realisable.

I made a slightly schoolboy error of assuming that my race was going to be on the Saturday, when in fact it wasn’t until 2:30pm on Sunday, giving me a whole extra day to kill. I went to visit a friend who was visiting down in London on Friday morning, and then headed from there to Uckfield station to be collected by Rachel who had driven down. Unfortunately for me, the trains transpired to be rather more efficient than the roads, and I arrived a good hour and a half before she did. Thankfully, there was a delightful cafe near to the station in which to pass the time drinking cappuccino, and reading about Mark Cavendish’s exploits in the Tour.

Having set up camp, I also set about changing over my BB – the shimano one I started the season with had finally given up the ghost, and I decided to spend an extra few quid on buying a KCNC roller-bearing one; I’ll let you know how it goes with that in a separate post once it’s got a few more miles on the clock! Then it was time for dinner back in Uckfield before returning to the site early enough to get a good night’s sleep. I even went for the customary Valpolicella with dinner to complete a quality Ernest taper.

Saturday felt like a nice chilled out day – the event had a very relaxed atmosphere, much more so than an equivalent NPS race, and it was really rather pleasant to have the time and the means to catch up with some friends. I did a couple of laps of the course at a fairly leisurely pace (no point killing yourself the day before the nationals, you can guarantee just the race will do that for you), and even saw some of GB’s better endurance racers, Ian Leitch & Sally Bigham checking out the course too. XC is getting mainstream!

Sunday dawned, and in spite of my plan to spend until 11am in bed, once I heard other people getting up I struggled to doze any further. A quick breakfast and some strong coffee, and it was time to watch the Juniors racing. They blitzed off the line into the bumpy field of doom at what seemed like warp speed, and before long, Steve James and Grant Ferguson appeared back in the arena at the head of affairs, being chased by a just-out-of-touch Kenta Gallagher. The situation remained much the same for the rest of the race, with Steve taking a narrow win ahead of Grant. Then it was Simon Ernest’s turn in masters, along with Mark Hutt and course designer and organiser Steve Jones in the vets. Si got a decent start, and looked to be working himself into the race well, not using too much energy early on, and leaving the leaders to dangle just within range. Unfortunately, none of us had counted on the appearance of Carl Sturgeon at the head of affairs – having hung a senior nationals medal around his neck in the past, he knew what it took. Racing on a bike that looked like it was from the late ‘90s, including v-brakes, he managed to get out of reach on the third lap, leaving Si to overhaul early leaders Steve James the elder and Neal Crampton for second place. An awesome ride. Mark and Steve showed the AW colours well in the vets, with Mark finishing in the top-10, and Steve overheard shouting to spectators “who designed this bloody course?”.

Finally, half-two arrived and it was time for me and Jon Pybus to hit the trails. I have to admit, looking forward three rows and seeing Liam and Oli ahead of me did fill me with nerves, the first i’d had all weekend, but before i’d had time for it to sink in, the gun had gone. Ian & I both got the atrocious starts you’d expect of people more used to the relaxed world of endurance racing, but where he managed to jump towards the head of the field, i ended up languishing near the back. In spite of my warm up, my legs just weren’t ready for the sheer pace (a common problem if you’re a regular reader of my blog!), and i tried to focus more on riding the course smoothly and not wasting energy than going flat out. Within half a lap, the front Espoirs had caught me, and i soon had Jon for company, albeit briefly, before being left on my own again by mid way through lap two. I was originally hoping to make it through my five laps without being caught by the leader, but as soon as they upped the numbers to six for the men, i knew it was only a matter of time before one of Liam and Oli got me.

Sure enough, in the middle of my fourth lap, Killer caught and passed me riding his usual super-smooth style, and i assumed my race was over.
I cruised around to the finish line, slightly perplexed that Oli and the rest of the elite field hadn’t caught up with me, and asked the commissaire if my race was over. “No, you can carry on if you want” he replied, the last three words all but obliging me to do another lap. It was hot, and i hadn’t drunk anything for nearly a whole lap assuming i would be pulled, but i grabbed another bottle from Mel (thanks Mel!) and went out one last time. Sure enough, Oli, and then later Paul Oldham caught me up, but i made it round and with the high rate of attrition even managed 26th place. Damn, one place away from the points. Fellow flat-lander Andrew Cockburn managed an incredible 9th place on the line; his first top-10 in any elite level national race.

Now i have to wait a couple of months for my favoured event to land at Pippingford – the Marathon Champs on the 13th of September. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be a deserving man who stands on the top step there. Thanks as ever to my sponsors AW Cycles, to Mel Ernest for kindly bottling for me, and to the organisers for a great event.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Dalby Forest BMBS

Early July, and already time for the fourth round of the BMBS – it’s amazing how time flies. The Dalby course has been a topic of near-constant conversation amongst mountain bikers since the new world cup-standard trail debuted in last year’s series. Equipped with some extremely impressive technical sections, with suitably awe-inspiring names (such as the apt “Worry Gill”), the course had utterly fazed me a year ago. It had taken me an hour of standing knock-kneed at the top and bottom of this 2.5m drop before i had dared to go for it, and not before i’d had several false-starts. Even after i’d finally made it down the drop proper, with eyes closed and convinced that i was going to fall into oblivion, there was still a slippery, rocky gully to contend with at the bottom – nightmare. Sadly, things got even worse at Medusa’s drop, another steep tricky section with a series of thick roots snaking across it, and some step-downs to catch the unwary. I made it most of the way down before heading off-line completely, and coming to a nervous stop, but Rachel wasn’t so lucky and fell, breaking her finger and bruising her chest and ribs badly. I didn’t even make it to the start line of my race, as we spent most of the evening in Scarborough A&E, and i decided it was probably best for us to just head home.
So, you can imagine my trepidation as my weekend began with the long-haul north on the A1. A short stop for dinner at an M&S service station (this is not just food for fuel, this is M&S jus-drizzled food for fuel...) and we bumped into Lloyd and Hollie Bettles, and James Hyde also making the trip north from the east. We got to Pickering a little after 8pm, and headed straight for the only empty spot we could see, in between the caravans, oops! Tent pitched, we decided to postpone any thoughts of riding until early the next morning, and hit the hay.

As always, too early, the alarm went at 7am, and up we got to pre-ride the course, knowing we had to be back in time for Rachel’s race to start at 10am. A quick breakfast of muesli and strong coffee, and away we went to have a look around; the time pressure being rather a benefit to me; it meant i couldn’t faff about; i either had to ride it, or jump off and run. My only little wobble came on the “bus-stop” section – a steep little uphill between two trees with an even steeper run-out that required you to make a 90 degree turn in not much space. I got to the top, stopped, almost fell off the top (knowing that this is how Mel Alexander broke her hip at the world cup did nothing for my nerves!), took a few steps back and tried again. The second time up, and self-preservation took over my motor-skills, somehow my brain knew how to get me out of the mess, and i even managed to hop the back wheel around at the top of the slope for a better run-off. Awesome!

I carried on around the course, a little concerned about what was waiting for me after the steep, nasty climb to the top of the medusa descent. I knew from Rachel working at the world cup in April that the lines had been remodelled to give a tougher A-line and a longer, easier B-line; determined not to lose face, i headed around the sharp left-turn and onto the B-line. It required a fair bit of concentration to stay on the path, but the toughest bit was the right turn at the bottom – it was really tempting to square it off, but that would take you over an almost-invisible drop. Bad. However, it definitely seemed a lot less intimidating than the year before, and i felt buoyed by the pre-ride. With nothing terribly tricky standing between the bottom of Medusa and the finish line apart from the big climb to Jingleby summit, i felt ready to race.

12:30 came around pretty quickly, leaving me just enough time to fill my bottles, head down the hill and then climb back up for a warm up, and get to the start line in time to ride around in circles with 200 other riders. It always amazes me to watch this strange ritual – there’s no way you could possibly make it happen except spontaneously, and i can’t help but think it looks rather like an ancient burial rite (maybe that’s what living with an archaeologist does to you!). The elites were off, looking a little sketchy into the first jump, and then it was our turn to be similarly dodgy in our riding. As soon as we hit the first section of the course, the pace went right down, and the jostling began. I’m never very good at being defensive off my position in the group – i struggle being small; even when i stick my elbows out people can still get past! I was feeling good, and holding my cool in the technical sections, only to be amazed how many of my fellow competitors were prepared to lose places and time by not riding the worry gill drop. Maybe it was their first year there!

As i dropped down the medusa a-line, i must have pressed the lever for my front brake a little too hard, causing my front tyre to come unseated, and all the air (and quite a lot of latex) to spray out of the side. After a dodgy-stopping moment, i walked the rest of the descent and cheered the other riders, whilst resigning myself to the fact that my race was over. I then realised that i had all i needed to fix my puncture, and whipped tube and air canister off my bike, before getting latex all over my legs in the process of fitting the new tube. Unfortunately, my inflator failed, and only succeeded in freezing my fingers and not filling my tyre, and i was forced to pinch a track pump from the tech zone nearby. I explained my dilemma to the commissaire, and asked him to take my number but allow me to continue riding as i wanted to get a bit more practice on the course. I rode around for another two laps, but it was difficult to push on knowing i’d already lost more than 10 minutes because of my puncture. Jon Pybus had an excellent race finishing 26th, and without so much as a scratch on him (which is more than could be said for his mate Toby who looked like he’d found a less than friendly bear in the woods!). Depleted by illness and more illness, Mark C was the only other representative of AW in the afternoon races, finishing an impressive 7th in the super-competitive vets category.

The following day was the “non-competitive” Yorkshire Enduro, which i’d entered in an effort to get a bit of form before the national champs. Unfortunately, living a semi-vegetarian life, my largely meat diet on Saturday evening played havoc with my internals, and i was glad when friends Trevor & Andrew suggested that we ride around together as a trio at a more gentle, truly non-competitive pace. It was a great course that had been put together for us by the organisers, if a little short of the 20km the forestry had promised them, and it felt nice to be out and about on a bike on such a nice day. We injected a bit of life into our ride by playing “Tour Series hot laps” every time we came through the start finish, much to organiser Martyn’s amusement, but my stomach wasn’t really letting me play (at least that’s my excuse for being last every time!). All three of us were a long way down on winner (can you have a winner for a non-comp?) Lee Williams, but we had a great day out making for quite a colourful lot with me in blue and yellow, Trevor in ergon green and Andrew in his pseudo-national champion’s jersey! So from the annoyance of having a mechanical the day before, my weekend definitely finished on a high.

Thanks as ever to sponsors AW Cycles and Giant Bikes, both have seen me perfectly through the season so far.